Experiencing Singapore (4): The Third-World Core of a First-World Country

The heading of this part is obviously polemical. Yet, even though I think it is a bit of an exaggeration to say that Singapore is a third-world country masquerading as a first-world one, there is some truth to that statement. It is indeed not an uncommon sentiment. First of all, if you stick to the most commercial parts of the country, which not only are home to international corporations but also offer luxurious and consequently very expensive accommodation for the well-to-do foreigner, Singapore does not in the least appear to be a third world country. Well, it is clearly not, but you would not even get why some people may want to draw your attention to the third-world roots of Singapore. A mere two generations ago Singapore was an undeveloped backwater. Today, it’s a bustling metropolis, welcoming companies and professionals from every corner of the earth. Yet, if you open your eyes a little bit, you will make some observations, which you arguably may not make in a modern Western country.

To the few Singaporeans reading this, I’m in no way bashing your country. Overall, I don’t think there is a single Western country that is, on average, more highly developed than yours. Yet, there are a few observations you won’t make in the West. The first one is cultural. There are certain habits I associate with, well, uncultured people. For instance, even if you live in a luxury apartment, you may have neighbors who have a shoe cabinet outside their place. Others may just pile up shoes. Then there are some who think nothing of drying their laundry in the foyer. You may now wonder in what kind of place I’ve seen that. Well, it was in a luxury estate in which an apartment costs you well over one million Singapore dollars and the people are easily in the top 5% in terms of wealth. Thus, it seems that even though you can turn a backwater country into a first-world one, you can’t easily get people to drop third-world habits.

Another issue is what Indians refer to as “Jugaad”. This means devising makeshift solutions, sometimes reaching the dimensions of a Rube Goldberg machine. You’ll see people just duct-taping things together in less extreme cases. On the other end of the spectrum, people may turn a balcony into an extra room, even if this means that there is a functioning tap coming out of the wall. That kind of approach is indeed part of the culture. If you are used to tradesmen doing a proper job, you should lower your expectations significantly in Singapore. You’ll easily see cables hanging down from the ceiling instead of being properly hidden. I was also quite baffled when I saw a fuse box that wasn’t secured, with cables hanging out.

Even in seemingly well-off establishments you will get hit by third-world habits. For instance, how many of you Westerners would use dishwashing liquid as a substitute for hand soap? I’d guess the number would be very close to zero, and if we exclude Shaqueesha with her 80,000 a year in welfare and an IQ that is 1,000th of that, the number would be zero. We are aware that dishwashing liquid is way too aggressive and therefore you shouldn’t expose your skin to it. That’s also why we use gloves in the rare situation when we have to do our dishes by hand. Not so in Singapore! This is what I’ve seen at a company I visited:

The soap dispenser on the left was empty, in case you’re wondering.

A typical sign of a third-world country are stray dogs. I don’t think there are any in Singapore, and if there are, their numbers are minuscule. Yet, there are absolutely staggering numbers of stray cats. I tried befriending a cat in the neighborhood of my girlfriend’s place, and then I realized that its eyes were infected and that it had a nasty scratch on its face. I really wish the government would put a bit of money into solving that problem. No, I’m not advocating putting stray cats to sleep — I have infinitely more empathy for a stray cat than human garbage — but a bit of money would go a long way. You’d just have to catch and sterilize them, and then you house and feed them in a shelter until someone adopts them. Instead, you have female cats in heat meowing at night, hoping to get the attention of a feline Chad or Tyrone. Of course, this only perpetuates the problem.

Speaking of animal life, you’ll also encounter critters you may have a lot less sympathy for, such as ants, who may make their way into living spaces. You’ll furthermore have mosquitoes that give nasty bites that lead to dark red patches instead of small bumps like their brethren in the West administer. You may come across rats every once in a while, but you’ll see those in London or New York as well. Lastly, I have to point out that on two different days I saw a cockroaches going about their day outside. One of them was bigger than some mice I have seen. It was pretty discomforting.

What you may find more humorous than discomforting is the habit of food stalls to not hand you your drink in a cup when ordering a takeaway, but instead in a small plastic bag that looks like this, held by my sexy girlfriend who is slender because she takes care of herself, not because she doesn’t get enough to eat:

Notice the straw! (Yes, you are supposed to drink from the plastic bag.)

The content of the translucent plastic bag you just saw may strike you as somewhat odd, too. It is tea mixed with coffee, a concoction surely high-brow lovers of either tea or coffee frown upon. My first thought was that it’s similar to a certain underclass habit in the West, namely mixing red wine and Coca Cola, a favorite among people of low socio-economic status in the West, regardless of age.

Lastly, there are issues that may only bother you once you learn about them as they are otherwise not noticeable. For instance, I was quite surprised when I learned that it is not uncommon that there are urine detectors in elevators. If you take a piss in an elevator, the doors will lock, and the police will eventually show up. I think it says a lot that such measures have to be taken. On that note, some low-class Singaporeans allegedly pee in the shower. Since private showers are not secured in a similar manner, that habit may be harder to root out. Well, us Westerners shouldn’t be too condescending on that matter. For instance, the other week I read that in some underclass rental dwellings in Berlin some people just defecate under the staircase. Thus, while third world habits like public defecation enjoy a revival in the West, Singapore is using the strong arm of the law to keep their underclass in check.

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